I have a Google news search on “St. James Infirmary” that does a pretty good job of alerting me to new versions and notable live performances of the tune. Recently, though, it came up with something weird: A 2002 review of a book published that year — Where Dead Voices Gather, by Nick Tosches. “On the surface an account of the life and times of Emmett Miller, a largely unknown blackface minstrel singer, the book is in fact a treatise on the meaning and making of culture itself, laying bare the hidden origins and strange currents of popular entertainment,” the writeup says.
The SJI mention occurs here:
Tosches illuminates the myriad ways country inspired contemporary pop culture. In one memorable passage he unearths the origins of black blues shouter Big Joe Turner’s “I Got a Gal for Every Day in the Week” in “a ragtime coon song composed in 1900.” In another he traces Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell” back through Jimmie Rodgers’ “Gambling Bar-Room Blues,” Blind Willie McTell’s “Dying Gambler,” and Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary” to an Irish ballad called “The Unfortunate Rake.”
I can’t tell if this is just a minor aside in the book. I’m surprised no one (that I can remember) has ever mentioned it to me.
There’s certainly nothing surprising about the path he seems to trace, but I suppose I’ll pick up a copy and see … although if anybody out there has read it, I’d be curious to hear what you know.